Research at the California Academy of Sciences

The Pacific Voyages of Rollo Beck

Collection of Oceanic Photographs and Objects


There are many volumes written about the adventures of early European and American explorers "discovering" new and far-off lands, such as the islands of the Pacific. As was often the case, the Western explorers were not discovering the lands they found but merely visiting the island homes of others. It was not Captain Cook but the Polynesians, who found and settled the islands of Oceania.

The first inhabitants of the islands of Oceania, are believed to have origins in South East Asia from where they crossed the Pacific by means of the voyaging canoe. Although people had reached areas of Western Melanesia as early as 30,000-40,000 years ago, the archaeological records indicate that their canoes did not reach the islands of Polynesia, further east, until approximately 3,500 years ago.

Rollo Beck Ida Beck

Rollo and Ida Beck


Born in Los Gatos, California in 1870, Rollo Beck was an ornithologist who spent much of his professional life traveling throughout the world collecting bird specimens for research institutions. In 1920, The Whitney Expedition, a zoological project funded privately by Harry Payne Whitney, sent the Becks to Oceania to collect birds for the American Museum of Natural History.

Rollo Beck

The Rollo Beck Collection

Although Beck was primarily an ornithologist, he and his wife, Ida, took personal interest in Oceanic cultures. In addition to collecting birds they collected numerous objects of material culture, that is, objects made and used by the indigenous people who inhabited the islands. The Department of Anthropology at The California Academy of Sciences houses nearly two thousand objects collected from areas throughout Oceania. The Rollo Beck collection alone comprises of nearly five hundred objects as well as a large collection of ethnographic photographs taken by Beck during his Pacific expeditions in the 1920's. These photos provide important ethnohistoric documentation from the time before tourism when missionaries and merchants were among the few "foreigners" living among the peoples of Oceania. Beck's photos show many of the objects found in our collection either in use or in the manufacturing process.

The Web Page

The following pages trace Rollo Beck's travels and the Whitney Expedition from an anthropological view point. Pictured are objects, collected by the expedition which are now housed in our anthropology collection, juxtaposed with the photography of Rollo Beck.

Map of Beck's journey

Map of Beck's Oceanic Journey

Rollo Beck continuedRollo Beck continued